Thirty-four years ago today, a group of peace demonstrators, some of whom had walked across the entire country before arriving in the nation's capital, flocked to Washington-area train stations, airports, and bus depots for their journey home. A couple hundred of the most committed among them had marched from "California to the New York island," as they put it in a tip of the cap to Woody Guthrie, before ending up in Lafayette Square across from the White House.
"You are the greatest!" Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey told the crowd. "You really are." Yes, Ed Markey was in Congress in 1986 -- in the House then, and not the Senate -- but most of the other players in that Cold War drama are gone from the scene, some to retirement, other to graveyards. I've written previously about the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, which I covered as a reporter at the time. But a jaundiced new documentary series offering a tediously caricatured view of Ronald and Nancy Reagan has brought those times back in the news this week, so I thought I'd reprise this uplifting episode in Washington's long history of protest.
The peace march that ended on Nov. 15, 1986, had a nostalgic feel to it, even then. Upon entering Washington, D.C., the marchers were serenaded by 1960s-era icon Peter Yarrow singing "Blowin' in the Wind," the 1963 Bob Dylan folk song that became a Vietnam-era peace anthem. The marchers reveled in their reception, even while expressing emotions ranging from cosmic fear of nuclear Armageddon to more temporal concerns about their immediate needs of food and shelter.
"One of my regrets is that I didn't get a Philadelphia steak sandwich," Jerry Rubin, a 42-year-old marcher from Los Angeles, told me at the time. There was a reason for that: When the march passed through Philadelphia, the city where Rubin was born, he was on a hunger strike while trying to gather 5,000 signatures on a peace banner.
"I'm ready to go where there are hot showers and warm beds," added George Condon, a retired Congregational Church minister from Santa Fe, N.M. But he wasn't weary of his larger task: When I asked the Rev. Condon about his future, he replied, "I'm going to witness and testify for peace."
But first, there was more singing. At noon in Lafayette Square, Pete Seeger and his band broke into "This Land Is Your Land," a Woody Guthrie song that pre-dates World War II. At 3 p.m. the marchers would trek to the Lincoln Memorial and, as dusk fell, they and their supporters lit a thousand candles ahead of two musical benefits held in their honor.
We know now that the long Cold War was finally winding down, but the marchers didn't know that. Few people did.
"This group stayed together for eight months when every tenet of logic dictated that it should have broken up," Seeger said that day. "It shows how people can put aside great differences and form a consensus if they have a common goal."
The marchers' goal consisted of four points: a ban on nuclear weapons testing; a freeze by all nations on the building of new nukes; a total ban on nuclear weapons in space; and, ultimately, the dismantling of all nuclear armaments worldwide.
"You have touched the hearts and minds of the American people," Sen. Tom Harkin told the marchers and their supporters in Lafayette Square. Standing within sight of the White House, the Iowa Democrat reminded the crowd that he had paid homage to them that summer when they crossed his state.
"In July, I spoke to you in Iowa City and I promised you if you made it, I'd be here with you," Harkin said. "I just wish the man in the White House were here instead of watching John Wayne re-runs."
Actually, the man in the White House was not watching television; at that very moment, President Reagan was meeting with Margaret Thatcher at Camp David. One of the subjects Reagan was discussing with the British prime minister was the status of his negotiations the month before with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik -- on the subject of reducing the world's ballistic missile arsenal.
The answer, my friends, was blowin' in the wind.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.